Something Old, Something New: Some Reflections on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics Project

It’s a warm night for November in Minneapolis, but I’m wearing tights, and I’m in a bus shelter, and I’m getting very cold. I remember I’ve forgotten something important, something I was stupid to forget, so I take the bus up the street to Target. I don’t know the store, but it’s big and it has escalators, so I assume it has what I need. It doesn’t. So I go outside again. My feet are throbbing in my cheap heels. I have a fleeting guilty thought of how vain I am, that I’m forcing body parts into painful positions on the off-chance that some strangers I’ll never meet again might find elongated legs aesthetically attractive. Adding credence to the thought of vanity is the dawning realization that although yes, I am a very small girl, I am not a size 1 girl; the secondhand dress I was so proud of finding at the thrift shop is beginning to feel more and more like a whalebone corset. I struggle to take a breath; my body forces me to yawn instead. I glance up and down Nicollet Mall and see a Walgreens. So I cross the street and wander up and down the aisles. Finally I find what I need. I pay and leave and sit down in the shelter again. I worry I’m sitting on my skirt, that I will stand up and find that the black fabric that has been so carefully ironed is now crushed. I feel a flash of frustration; if I’m going to wear a too-tight outfit, I want it to look spectacular, dammit. I shift my weight on the tulle. As I do, my stomach starts making strange noises it hadn’t made before I buttoned up the dress. I wonder idly how this bodes for the quieter moments of the concert I’m about to attend. I wonder if anyone else will hear me, if they’ll guess that the noises are from the too-tight dress, if they’ll think me vain. Am I vain? A kind-looking woman steps inside the shelter; she speaks pleasantly to the man standing next to her, then takes out her phone and screams that she’ll be home in a minute, that she’s waiting for the bus, and that’s she’s fine, except she’s cold, very cold! She quits the call suddenly without saying good-bye. A little girl runs between us and starts to cry. Buses come and go. Mine is late. I hop aboard and sway down the street. People speak in a buzz of languages I can’t identify, much less understand. I pull the cord for a stop; at the next corner the back door doesn’t open. I bang at it a little; everybody looks at me with raised eyebrows, except the driver, who doesn’t see me at all. I sigh and stand back from the door. At the next stop I get off and sit for a moment on the edge of a fountain that has been drained for the winter. I see the hall in the distance; it’s further away than I want it to be, but it’s not worth waiting twenty minutes for the bus in the other direction. A man comes by and tries to sell me a rose. I tell him no thank you. This is an unwelcome reminder that appearances are deceptive; despite the seemingly expensive dress and musical tastes, I have no money. (Tomorrow afternoon I will have to scrounge through my purse to find a few dollars’ worth of coins to pay a parking garage fee I forgot I owed.) I finally bundle up against the wind and set off for Orchestra Hall. Once I get inside I limp through the lobby and down the stairs. I get into the restroom and try to steady myself. It’s hard; my ankles are wobbling. I soak my hands in very hot water.

When the auditorium doors open and I take my seat, my mind is still buzzing with inconsequential thoughts. Judging by the fragments of lighthearted chit-chat I hear all around me, so is everyone else’s. The only discussion of the music is coming from an elderly woman behind me who is reading the program notes to her companion slowly, in a loud voice. A little after eight o’ clock, the house lights go down and the orchestra tunes.

But the rites and rituals of a traditional orchestral concert end there. A violist, brandishing a microphone instead of a viola, and a conductor – a stylish young female conductor – come out onto the stage. She ascends the podium and raises her arms to cue the orchestra. The lights go dark, and darker, and darker. The first aching strains of the third movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony emanate into the hall.

“I’ve often thought that one of the best ways to take the measure of an artist is to observe how he reacts to circumstances beyond his control,” the violist says. “How does he respond to hardship, to success, to criticism, and how are those responses reflected in his work? When an artist finds himself in a place that is nakedly hostile to Art, how does he defend himself? Does he become a rebel, speaking truth to power and risking his freedom or even his life? Does he flee to the safety of art that challenges nothing and acquiesces to the powerful? Or does he carve some more complicated middle path, and leave it up to history to sort out his legacy?”

The blackness of the hall, the music, and the words transport me to a different place. Thoughts about the dress and the heels and the tulle and the (lack of) money and the cold and the pain and the bus and every other inconvenience I’ve suffered on this long, long day of travel suddenly vanish. Physically, I may be in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall, at one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics shows on Shostakovich five, but mentally, I’m in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Despite my exhaustion, I don’t get to sleep until well past one o’ clock that night. I’m unable to get certain notes of the symphony, or the violist’s terrifying suggestions of what those notes might mean, out of my mind. This is music at its most engaging, I think to myself, lying on the hotel bed and looking out at the Minneapolis skyline, all lit up in the crisp November night. This is a new way of doing an old thing. And if my experience as a listener is any indication, it just might be working.

***

I started reading the Minnesota Orchestra blog, Inside the Classics, sometime in 2009. I feel safe in saying that it’s one of the most engaging in the classical music world. It’s written by two big musical personalities, Orchestra violist and former ArtsJournal news editor Sam Bergman and Principal Pops and Presentations Conductor Sarah Hicks, both of whom bring their own unique and eloquent voices to the virtual table. Entries are wide-ranging in both tone and subject matter. To give a little taste of what they write about, a few of the eighty-odd tags on their blog include elitism, loud brass instruments, musical dorkery, musician humor, new music, philosophical musings, stirring the pot, the long-suffering audience, things that make us look lame and snooty, and Sam as neurotic freak.

Three times a year Sam and Sarah (as they call each other on the blog and onstage) get together with the orchestra to give what they call “a show about a concert.” Last year they covered Dvorák’s seventh symphony, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’d read about these concerts in the promotional booklets the Orchestra sends out every year and thought they looked interesting, but – and here’s a shocker – it turns out that when you’re a disabled young person caught up in the cogs of the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, you tend to not have a lot of money to go see concerts, much less concerts in other cities. However, when a review that I wrote about the Minnesota Orchestra for violinist.com last summer became the subject of a flattering entry of Bergman’s (gotta love the echo chamber!), I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to get to Minneapolis and meet him and see what he does in-person. (Okay, so clearly I come to this subject with some bias, especially since [in the interest of full responsible journalistic disclosure and all that jazz] I’ve met Bergman a few times since then, and I took a violin lesson from him in October, and I think he’s a good guy. But in my opinion, writers who think themselves free of bias are deluding themselves, especially when they’re writing about the incestuous world of classical music, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else. If the alternative to bias means not getting to know the most interesting people in our art, I’ll choose the bias any day, thanks. If you feel this invalidates everything I’m about to say, you’re totally free to quit reading. Anyway.)

Long story short, this March I was finally able to make the trip to Minneapolis for an Inside the Classics show on Ravel, and I had a blast. The show’s first half consists of Sam and Sarah having a dialogue about the composer, elements that influenced him and his work, and the form and structure of the piece in question, with the orchestra supplying samples of it and other related works to put it into perspective. (This portion of the show is similar to what Michael Tilson Thomas does in the San Francisco Symphony’s gripping PBS series Keeping Score. If you haven’t seen that show yet, you must. In fact, you have my permission to stop reading this and watch an episode. You’re welcome.) After intermission, Bergman puts away the microphone and heads back to his seat in the viola section, Hicks ascends the podium, and the orchestra blazes through a full uninterrupted performance of the work. Cue wild whoops and hollers from the appreciative audience. Last season’s concerts featured informal Q&A sessions after each show, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to wait around afterward and say hi and engage them in a quick conversation about what you like (or don’t like) about what they’re doing.

(Sam and Sarah sell the ItC concept on Youtube. Look, classical musicians have finally figured out how to upload videos! Go us!)

I think shows like these tend to succeed or stumble based on two things: the quality of the writing and the charisma of the host(s). Bergman and Hicks leap over both hurdles with flying colors. They’re smart, funny, and sophisticated; they know how to appeal to seasoned concertgoers without ever talking down to newcomers; they have chemistry to burn. One or the other could easily hold the stage alone, but together they conquer it. They both are a real inspiration to this writer who loves music, and who is trying her best to figure out how exactly one field can inspire the other: put another way, how to use words to discuss a wordless art form. When I see Sam and Sarah taking their bows after the first half of the concert is over, and then look around me at a 2500-seat auditorium filled to the brim with a crowd much younger and more engaged than the hoity-toity moribund one stereotypically associated with orchestral music, I feel all sorts of questions percolating in my brain. How exactly have they built up such a loyal audience? What have they done right (because obviously they’re doing a lot of things right)? Why does so much orchestral music have the reputation of being so irrelevant and incomprehensible since, framed correctly, it’s clearly not? How can we share it with people who are interested in it but hesitant to set foot in a hall? How can we fulfill audiences’ thirsts for knowledge – thirsts that sometimes they didn’t even know they had? Where do new technologies and new traditions fit into the picture?

I’m a dork; I’ve always been a dork; I’ve never really stopped to think about any of these things before, because if there’s an orchestra concert and I’m in town and I have the money, I go to it, no questions asked. But not everyone is as fortunate as me; not everyone has six years of private music lessons and a summer at chamber music camp under their belt; not everyone has a family supportive of musical endeavors; not everyone has kind engaging musician friends who are willing to drop everything to discuss what they love and loathe about their art. So, if the vast majority of orchestral audiences don’t have those advantages to stoke their love of music, how can we reach them and serve them and deepen our connection with them? The whole Inside the Classics project – the blog and the concert series both – encourages me to ask these hugely important questions. I’m well aware they’re ancient chestnuts to a lot of people who make their living in the arts, but they’re new and exciting to me. And I’m finding it fascinating to watch the members of the Minnesota Orchestra attempt to answer them.

***

In November 2010 the Inside the Classics team announced they were commissioning a major new orchestral work by Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein. Okay, whatever, big deal; commissions like this happen all the time, right? Wrong. This project is unique on a variety of levels. It wouldn’t be financed by one major donor, or a fund contributed to by major donors; instead, it would be paid for by ordinary people who would each chip in anything from $1 to $1500. Bergman and Hicks labeled this project the “Microcommission.” A donation page was set up on the Minnesota Orchestra website, and at the end of each 2010-2011 Inside the Classics concert, viola cases were scattered throughout the lobby, in which audiences were encouraged to drop any spare cash. (I knew viola cases were good for something!) By June 2011, hundreds of people had given $20,000, enough to buy the Inside the Classics audience a brand new orchestral work. Leading up to the big premiere in March 2012, Greenstein – a thoughtful, engaging young composer who writes appetizing music influenced by a wide variety of genres – is contributing his thoughts about his work and the creative process on the Inside the Classics blog. (He wrote a mind-bogglingly interesting entry this month about nomenclature and why he’s hesitating to call this new work a symphony. If that kind of thing floats your boat, you’ll want to check it out.) He was even a part of the Shostakovich 5 show this week, elaborating on the idea of how composers “steal” from one another, employing an extended metaphor about a very tasty crouton. (Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was entertaining and enlightening.) Next January he’s going to be in Minneapolis again to provide input on the next Inside the Classics show on John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives, and of course he’ll be an integral part of the March season finale at which his new piece will be dissected and premiered. And as if there wasn’t enough going on already, he and Bergman have just launched a project called The Listening Room, described here as “an online book club, only with music instead of books.” Together the two of them are going to be soliciting questions from blog readers, resulting in a (hopefully) absorbing discussion of the music that has influenced Greenstein. (Even if you live nowhere near Minnesota, you can take part in this. So stay tuned.)

(Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, during a visit to New York earlier this year, Bergman conducted a five-part video interview with Greenstein in which they discuss everything from Milton Babbitt to the future of live music to social experiences in the concert hall. So yeah. They’ve been busy.)

The microcommission is one of those ideas that is so painfully obvious, it’s embarrassing that nobody in the classical music world has embraced it yet. (At least not that I know of, anyway.) The idea of microfunding has permeated our modern digital culture, from the emails we get from various politicians and fundraising organizations begging for “small donations of just $5, $10, or $20!” – to celebrities going on Twitter hiatuses until their fans chip in a certain amount of cash for various charitable purposes – even to late-night television, where this April Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert sang a duet of Rebecca Black’s Friday as a reward for their audiences after 2000+ viewers raised nearly $120,000 for the awesome website Donors Choose. So heck, why not extend the concept to orchestral music? All the cool kids are doing it, so why can’t we nerds have some fun with the idea, too?

The Inside the Classics team didn’t stop there, even though they easily could have done so, and patted themselves on the back for their innovation, to boot. But they didn’t. They realized they could seize this opportunity to get even more creative: to use new technology to connect audience members and to help them form an emotional and intellectual connection to “their” piece and its composer. (By the way, their selection of Judd Greenstein as the microcommission composer was an inspired one. He very neatly and effectively shatters the myth that all contemporary composers live in lonely unheated garrets, suffering from acute social anxiety disorder and writing hideous cacophonous things that they swear to God our grandchildren will understand.)

(Case in point, Greenstein’s fantastic quartet Four on the Floor, performed by, you guessed it, members of the Minnesota Orchestra.)

After the show on Shostakovich 5, the audience was invited to stay for a post-concert performance of Greenstein’s quartet Four on the Floor. This high-voltage piece was performed by four musicians from the orchestra (including Bergman, who obviously had a bit of a full plate this weekend). It’s a fun piece to listen to, but it’s even more fun to watch. Complicated rhythms ricochet back and forth between the parts, and at times the first and second violins seem like they’re in a wild dance-to-the-death with the viola and cello. After the final virtuosic chords ripped through the hall, the audience – which was bigger than I thought it would be – burst into wild applause. It was quite a sight to see the ensemble and the composer taking their bows together onstage: three ridiculously accomplished members of the orchestra, the violist/writer/host who has put so much thought and creativity into making this series happen, and the young up-and-coming composer who I feel is on the edge of unleashing some very, very exciting sounds that even small-town Midwestern me will be able to appreciate. I hope I’m able to make it to Minneapolis in March to see the final result of this creative ferment.

That being said, I have no idea how the project will pan out. Nobody knows yet if audiences will like Greenstein’s new piece, or if tickets will sell. Speaking more broadly, I don’t know how many more years the Inside the Classics series or blog will go on, or if the concept could survive in any meaningful form if either Bergman or Hicks would, for whatever reason, give up their ItC duties. But maybe, in some weird way, that’s all beside the point. Maybe it’s the mere willingness to experiment that matters. Because even if certain aspects of the project fall short of expectations, chances are, others won’t. And some might even exceed them. Actually, it’s totally within the realm of possibility that the Minnesota Orchestra is starting new concertgoing traditions that will serve to deepen their audience’s appreciation for old and new music alike. That’s exciting. That’s thrilling. Maybe musicians in other cities will sit up and take note and try similar things, customizing ideas for their own individual communities. And maybe in the process we’ll finally shut up at least some of the people who take such sadistic pleasure in telling us that no matter what we do, we and the music we love are doomed to perpetual irrelevance. God, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

 * * *

Where is orchestral music headed? Are we in our final death throes, like everyone keeps insinuating we are (like we keep telling ourselves we are)? Is an out-of-the-box approach going to charm an audience that comes largely for old programming served up in a traditional manner? Can we get an audience that thrives on new experiences to buy tickets to the warhorses, as long as they’re performed with passion and commitment? Can we serve both demographics, or even get the two demographics to mix? Are either of those ideas wise in the long-run? What traditions will tomorrow’s audiences embrace? What will our programs look like ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? Will there come a day when wordless all-music concerts will be heavily supplemented by concerts with affable, intelligent hosts? Will more orchestras start employing eloquent, opinionated bloggers as tools to establish deeper connections with their audience? Will we eventually be expected to communicate about music just as effectively with words as we do with our instruments?

I’d be a presumptuous ass to say I knew the answers to any of those questions. I’m wary of anyone who claims with any certainty to see the future. But I do know that my life as a listener has been vastly expanded by the new approaches the Minnesota Orchestra is trying, and you know what? For me, that’s reason enough to love what they’re doing, and to encourage other musicians in other communities to think about following at least some of their leads at least some of the time.

Because I want other music-lovers to have the same exciting experiences I’ve had. I want other people to come to concerts totally absorbed by stupid inconsequential things, then be transported to other times and places via the power of thought-provoking writing and music. I want witty charming intelligent musicians onstage sharing their thoughts about the repertoire. I want insights to bring back home to my own listening – insights that I simply won’t ever get in a traditional music-only concert. I want other people to have mind-expanding experiences with the work of living composers, and maybe even with the actual living composers themselves. In short, I want other people to get the same joy out of orchestral music that this blog and this series and this orchestra has given to me. I hope to God that’s not an impossibly naive wish.

So if you’re in the Minneapolis area, buy a ticket to an Inside the Classics show, give it a try, and let me know what you think. (I don’t think Sam or Sarah would mind hearing your thoughts, either, positive or negative!) If your own local orchestra has a similar program, try it out; see what works and what doesn’t. Putting on these kinds of concerts and utilizing new technologies are just two of the many tools available to us orchestral musicians as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. If audience-cultivating methods like these can succeed, maybe – maybe? – we’re not quite as close to dying off as we like to think.

5 Comments

Filed under My Writing, Reviews

5 responses to “Something Old, Something New: Some Reflections on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics Project

  1. Michael Adams

    I love your writing! Great post Emily. I hope you are well. Oh, and beauty has such a price attached doesn’t it? Tip for helpful living, as told to me by my wise old Grandma: Always wear comfortable shoes!

    • Thank you, Michael. I’m doing very well. I was in the Orchestra Hall bathroom and a woman and I got into a conversation about heels and she said, “Oh! Women!” It’s so true. What I need to do is come into a great deal of money and try out some of those designer heels that are supposed to be comfortable. Unfortunately I have a feeling that being a music writer, that goal is a loooong way off… Flats it is from here on out, at least when there are errands at Target to be completed!

      Thanks again for your comment. Your grandma was a very, very wise woman.

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